Asian action has left the Saudi Professional League’s giants with contrasting emotions headed into round four.
Elsewhere, the top flight’s trademark churn of coaches is now in full swing. Here are the talking points:
NASSR NEED A RESPONSE
When Al Nassr striker Abderrazak Hamdallah piquantly put fingers to his lips in celebration and shushed the Al Sadd hordes, a first AFC Champions League semi-final seemed a certainty.
The value of this away goal was, though, stripped away in a ruinous 3-1 defeat. Cold analysis points to Nassr’s reticence to attack, inviting pressure they could not endure with only four foreigners.
In the capricious micro-environment of Saudi football, one big loss is enough to undo great work. Tailspins swiftly gain momentum – just ask Zoran Mamic about Al Hilal.
This was still only the sixth reversal in 30 matches under coach Rui Vitoria. Faith in his project should remain steadfast though, for now, beginning with Friday’s rebound versus winless Al Hazem.
The axiom ‘too much of a good thing’ could spring to mind ahead of a third Saudi El Clasico in three weeks.
But this does disservice to how deep the fault lines lie between Al Ittihad and Al Hilal, plus the entertainment doled out in Tuesday’s Asian thriller.
August’s staid goalless 152nd derby exploded into a 3-1 second-leg win for Hilal, from which they pumped in 26 attempts. Ittihad, however, unsettled from set-pieces, rattled the woodwork via Romarinho and had goalkeeper Fawaz Al Qarni to blame for two goals.
What better way to gain instant revenge than derailing Hilal’s domestic ambitions?
ALL CHANGE AT THE TOP
So, it is goodbye to Al Ahli Jeddah’s disconnected Branko Ivankovic and underwhelming Al Wehda tactician Mario Cvitanovic.
And in unique Saudi fashion, both went following Wehda’s 2-1 victory at Ahli last Saturday.
For Wehda, the availability of ex-Nassr (twice) and Al Shabab boss Jose Daniel Carreno proved too tempting. A date with Fayha beckons on Friday for the Uruguayan.
Circumspection should be undertaken in Jeddah about why Ivankovic’s rampant success with Iran’s Persepolis did not translate. Caretaker Saleh Al Mohammadi will oversee Saturday’s journey to Al Fateh.
The Saudi El Clasico is sure to, belatedly, catch light when great rivals Al Ittihad and Al Hilal compete on Tuesday for a berth in the 2019 AFC Champions League’s semi-finals.
More than 54,000 impassioned fans packed into Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City experienced an incongruous and sedate goalless draw in the opening stanza. Something has to give when the action resumes at Riyadh’s King Saud University Stadium.
The attention of the Kingdom will centre on the King Saud.
It would be wrong for this gaze to fixate, alone, on foreign ranks which contain the likes of ex-France centre forward Bafetimbi Gomis and prolific Brazilian forward Romarinho. The passions of this 69-year-old rivalry are uniquely Saudi – it would be fitting if locals decide it.
Forgotten superstar Nawaf Al Abed’s fine opener versus Al Fayha gave a timely reminder of his talents, while goals this month from fellow winger Salem Al Dawsari earned Saudi Arabia draws versus Mali and Yemen.
From the yellow and black hordes, destiny calls for summer buy Haroune Camara. Serbia centre forward Aleksandar Prijovic’s absence from Ittihad’s reduced four-player non-domestic quota opens up opportunity.
Neither combatant can be impressed with weekend results.
The Saudi Professional League’s resumption witnessed 2018/19 runners-up Hilal drop points for the first time this term in a 1-1 draw with unfancied Fayha. This slip was inflicted on home soil, via a 94th-minute leveller from Arsenio.
Ittihad, however, did even worse. Calamitous errors from centre-backs Manuel da Costa and Abdulmohsen Fallatah gifted a landmark 2-1 victory to promoted Damac.
AWAY DAY BLUES?
Signs of potential success for the visitors are scant.
They sit 12th in the SPL and look set for another flirt with relegation, while Hilal’s potent attack puts them top. The Tigers, however, boast successive – and impressive – away Asian wins at Qatar’s Al Rayyan and Iran’s Zob Ahan.
If they make this a hat-trick on Tuesday, Ittihad’s faithful may yet be able to keep crowing about two ACL titles to their opponents’ painful zero.
Floundering Al Ahli Jeddah supremo Branko Ivankovic is expected to be imminently confirmed as the first managerial casualty of the 2019/20 Saudi Professional League, according to widespread reports.
Ivankovic, 65, witnessed his brief reign at King Abdullah Sports City plumb new depths on Saturday with a rancorous 2-1 home loss to Al Wehda. Condemnation reigned down from scarcely attended stands, with calls for change reaching fever pitch after only two miserable months in charge.
The defeat followed a season-opening 1-1 draw with top-flight debutants Al Adalah and a fortunate 2-1 triumph at Ettifaq. Elimination in the 2019 AFC Champions League’s round of 16 was also recorded last month versus Al Hilal, the generous 4-3 aggregate scoreline owing much to the Riyadh side sitting back on their dominant first-leg advantage.
Further issues included a reportedly tempestuous relationship with star striker Omar Al Somah, plus unpropitious starts for foreign additions such as Serbia forward Danijel Aleksic – already sold to Istanbul Basaksehir – and Bosnia midfielder Elvis Saric.
Verification of Ivankovic’s departure will mean that Ahli are searching for their fifth permanent coach since the beginning of 2017/18.
Ukraine legend Serhiy Rebrov was sacked in April after the SPL crown was lost to Al Hilal by a single point and replaced by caretaker Fathi Al Jabal. Argentina’s Pablo Guede lasted from July 2018-February 2019 and Uruguay veteran Jorge Fossati endured an abysmal 68-day spell at the helm until April.
Ivankovic was then unable to replicate his success in Iran with giants Persepolis and has likely paid with his job.